Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Fighting for Muslim Women’s Rights

BBC News reports on a fascinating conference taking place right now in Barcelona regarding Women’s Rights in Islam:

Fighting for Muslim women’s rights

Some of the world’s leading Islamic feminists have been gathered in Barcelona for the third International Congress on Islamic Feminism, to discuss the issues women face in the Muslim world.
Some of the women taking part in the conference explained the problems in their home countries, and where they hoped to make progress.

ASMA BARLAS, Author, Pakistan
Religions always come into cultures, they don’t come into abstract and pure spaces. Islam came into a very patriarchal, tribal and misogynistic culture. One of the deepest damages to Islam has been its reduction to “Arabisation”.

I’m not going to say that the Arabs are particularly misogynistic in a way that nobody else is, but I do think there are very particular traits and attitudes towards women that have crept into Islam.
I have a friend who has been studying the interface between what he calls the Persian models and the Arabist models of Islam in the subcontinent and surprise, surprise: the Arabist models are misogynistic, authoritarian, unitarian and the Persian models are much more plural and tolerant.
This is a fight on two fronts – on the one hand we are struggling against the kinds of oppression dominant in Muslim patriarch societies and, on the other, Western perceptions of Islam as necessarily monolithic, and confusing the ideals of Islam with the reality of Muslim lives.

If we read the Koran as a totality rather than pulling out random verses or half a line, that opens all kinds of possibilities for sexual equality.

RAFIAH AL-TALEI, journalist, Oman
Oman is relatively liberal, women are free to choose what to wear, and can choose their jobs and education. And the law does not require us to wear any particular form of clothing. But there are strong social and cultural factors – coming from the fact that we are in Arabia – that limit women.

As a journalist, it has not been hard for me to work among men, but it has been hard for some of my colleagues whose families told them this was not “appropriate” work for them.

The biggest difficulties are the social and cultural factors, and some aspects of law. For example, women who marry a foreigner cannot pass on their nationality to their children, whereas men in that situation can.

Religion is not an issue in our struggle, although there are problems with family law about divorce and marriage status. Omani laws are based on sharia law. Sharia is fair, but it is the wrong interpretations that are the problem. Male judges often don’t understand the principal goals of sharia.

We feel the law is fair, but ends up being unfair for women because of how judges interpret it.
Cultural and social factors often get mixed up with religion. Educated women can be more empowered and separate the two, but many don’t dare challenge the conventions.

NORANI OTHMAN, Scholar-activist, Malaysia
I don’t think it is any more difficult to be an Islamic feminist than a non-Muslim, or secular feminist.

Asian Muslim states have very different traditions to Middle Eastern countries

Feminists in general have to face up to political and cultural obstacles, to achieve our objectives of women’s rights. Even Western feminists have had a similar history – having to engage with certain religious beliefs not conducive to gender equality.

Perhaps the only distinctive difference peculiar to Muslim feminists is that we are caught in the cross-currents of modernisation and a changing society, due to a modern economy on the one hand and the global resurgence of political Islam on the other.

Political Islam wants to impose a world view about the gender order that is not consistent with the realities and the lived experiences of Muslim men and women in contemporary society.

Our detractors would hurl empty accusations at us – calling us Western, secular or anti-Islamic
There is a difference between South East Asian Muslim countries and the ones in the Middle East – culturally we are less patriarchal, we can always respond to our detractors by pointing out we don’t have the cultural practices that they do.

Our detractors would hurl empty accusations at us – calling us Western, secular or anti-Islamic.
Our arguments are rooted within Islam – we want renewal and transformation within the Islamic framework. They don’t like that.

We have a holistic approach, seeking gender equality within the Islamic framework, supported by constitutional guarantees. We see that these are not inconsistent with the message of the Koran, particularly during its formative stages. We have to understand the history and cultural context and extract the principle that will be applicable in modern times.

SITI MUSDAH MULIA, Academic, Indonesia
In my experience, I find that it is very difficult to make Indonesian Muslim women aware that politics is their right.

In Indonesian society, politics is always conceived as cruel and dirty, so not many women want to get involved, they think it is just for men.

According to the [radicalist] Islamic understanding, women should be confined to the home, and the domestic sphere alone

We try to make women understand that politics is one of our duties and rights and they can become involved without losing their femininity.

Personally, I’m non-partisan, I’m not linked to one political party because, in Indonesia, the political parties often discriminate against women.

I struggle from outside the political sphere to make it women-friendly, to reform political parties and the political system.

One day, I hope to be involved more directly, if the system becomes more women-friendly. We have passed a law about affirmative action and achieving 30% female representation, but we won’t see if it is implemented until after 2009 elections. We are waiting.

In Indonesia, some groups support us, but some radical groups oppose what we are trying to achieve. They accuse me, accuse feminist Muslims, of being infidels, of wanting to damage Islamic affairs.

According to their Islamic understanding, women should be confined to the home, and the domestic sphere alone.

AMINA WADUD, Academic, United States
There are many more conversations going on today between different interpretations of Islam. Some interpretations are very narrow, some are more broad, principled, ethically-based.

Unless we have sufficient knowledge about Islam, we cannot bring about reform of Islam. I am not talking about re-interpretation, I am talking more about gender-inclusive interpretation.

Islam and feminism are not mutually exclusive
We have a lot of information about men’s interpretations of Islam, and of what it means to be a woman in Islam. We don’t have equal amounts of information about what women say it means to be a good woman in Islam.

Now it’s time for men to be active listeners, and after listening, to be active participants in bringing about reform.

There is a tendency to say that it is Islam that prohibits women from driving a car, for example, when women drive cars all over the world except in one country. So then you know it is not Islam. Islam has much more flexibility, but patriarchy tends to have the same objective, and that is to limit our ability to understand ourselves as Muslims.

I have always defined myself as pro-faith and pro-feminism.
I do not wish to sacrifice my faith for anybody’s conception of feminism, nor do I sacrifice the struggle and actions for full equality of women, Muslim and non-Muslim women, for any religion. Islamic feminism is not an either/or, you can be Muslim and feminist and strive for women’s rights and not call yourself a feminist.

FATIMA KHAFAJI, Consultant, Egypt
In Egypt, Islamic feminism is a way for women activists to reach a large number of ordinary women in the villages and in urban low-income areas, using a framework of Islam. So there would be a reference to Islam when talking about women’s rights. Experience has shown that that is an easy way to get women to accept what you’re saying.

Not many women get information about women’s rights easily, so you have to counter what has been fed to them, to both men and women, from the strict, conventional, religious people who have more access to women.

They have their own idea of women’s rights in Islam – that is, patriarchal, still limiting opportunities for women. But women have been receiving this concept for ages, through the radio, TV, mosques, so the challenge is how to give them another view, of enlightened Islam, that talks about changing gender roles. It’s not an easy job.

Historically, in Egypt in the feminist movement, there have been both Muslim and Christian women. It has never been a problem. Unfortunately nowadays, it has become a problem. Religious discrimination has been dividing people very much. We have to think carefully about how to supersede the differences.

With family law, we’re aiming to change the philosophy of the law itself. Traditional family law puts women down. I can see this whole notion of “women do not have control over their bodies” in so many laws, in the penal code and family law. For example, sexual harassment is happening because men think the control of women’s bodies is a matter for them. Even the decision whether to have children is the decision of men. This whole notion has to be changed in a dramatic way if we are really going to talk about women’s rights in Egypt.

October 29, 2008 - Posted by | Community, Cross Cultural, Family Issues, Living Conditions, News, Relationships, Social Issues, Women's Issues


  1. Did you see the article in yesterday’s Kuwait Times about the Sunni clerics in Egypt who have determined that “…women may fight back if their husbands are violent”?
    How nice to have permission from the heavyweights of Islam to defend myself. Mind you, the parameters are such that I still might find myself on the receiving end of Imam disapproval.

    Comment by DaisyMae | October 29, 2008 | Reply

  2. Haah! They are making too many assumptions and missing the point and bigger picture.

    “Islam came into a very patriarchal, tribal and misogynistic culture. One of the deepest damages to Islam has been its reduction to “Arabisation”.”

    Oh yah right!! Like Islam came by itself to the Arab society by coincidence? It was Allah who reveled it there and by an Arab prophet and in an Arab society setting. The Prophet is reported to have said: “I was sent to complete/elevate the best of ethics/morals”. Meaning there were currently morals in place that he was sent to emphasize and enhance.
    I could reword the same argument against this and say: One of the deepest damages to Islam has been its reduction to “Globalization” without regard to the innate differences between the genders on average and without a thorough understanding of its core message and the organizational struture of the important roles and duties of each gender towards the benefit of the society and the minimization of conflicts and other detrimental factors.

    “Political Islam wants to impose a world view about the gender order that is not consistent with the realities and the lived experiences of Muslim men and women in contemporary society.”

    My counter-rewording: The sorry state and the continous downhill in today’s contemporary societies in terms of ethics, commercialization of women and increases of sexual harrasement, extra-martial affairs, and other related soceity shattering incidents in the world today have leaked into the Islamic societies as these “contemporary” societies, new world order media and globalization have imposed their view and practices.

    “In Indonesian society, politics is always conceived as cruel and dirty, so not many women want to get involved, they think it is just for men.”

    Loool!… my sarcastic counter argument: In today’s societies without exception, the political scenes are of high ethical standard, integrity and mutual self-respect and consideration that Muslim women have absolutely nothing to fear from entering this exciting and rewarding arena [swamp].

    “According to the [radicalist] Islamic understanding, women should be confined to the home, and the domestic sphere alone”
    YES and NO. NO: Today, there are certainly certain fields outside the domestic sphere such as certain schooling, medicine, etc.. where the availability of women to cover the necessity is required. And YES: The domestic sphere is of such utter importance to the society as the main sculpture of future generations of the Islamic message carriers, such that the result of the supposed feminist/women-“liberation” concepts leading to at the very least peer-pressure, as well as socio-economic pressures (perpetrated on men by the number of women pouring into the workforce without consideration to the field and actual need) on women to “join” the “workforce” and “emancipate” themselves from the confines of the domestic sphere, we see the shattering detrimental effect on the bound of the building block of society: the domestic spehere.

    “We try to make women understand that politics is one of our duties and rights”

    Says who? And why? And to what benefit exactly?

    Finally, I am not saying that there aren’t certain practices in today’s societies that are certainly abhorent and non-Islamic, but to blame this all on Islamic principles or even “customs” is unfair. What is more abhorent is the attempt to belittle the efforts and conclusions of the early pious and respected scholars simply because the majority of them where men!! As if what they (i.e. their school of thought/students) concluded of Islamic verdicts and opinions was purely tanted by the supposed “patriarchal” effect and not supported by logical conclusions and proper analysis methods of the religious texts. Perhaps the patriarchal effect could be true in other religions, but to extend that to “orthodox” Islam is baseless and mere blind following of “others” as the Prophet warned from.

    What needs to be stressed is that Islam needs to be looked at as a whole system. Focusing on shortcomings of societies and blaming it on religion while not adhering to the pertinent guidelines of the religion is unjust! It is also deviance to consider highly what “contemporary” societies are upholding of “values” and “ideals” without honestly looking at the detrimenal side-effects of these so called values and ideals. Example: Views on Socialism/Communism vs. Capitalism.

    More to say, but gotta go… I might blog about this later.

    Comment by nbq | October 29, 2008 | Reply

  3. DaisyMae – I saw that – and one cleric said something like if he hits you, hit him back doubly hard? Or something like that? And I thought to myself that could be a recipe for getting killed. It just escalates the violence. How do we get couples to change their behavior and find new, consultative ways to work out their problems WITHOUT resorting to violence?

    NBQ – We may not agree, but you are always welcome to put forth the other side when you do it so eloquently and thoughtfully and politely.

    I was greatly blessed in Saudi Arabia to hang out with a lot of women scholars – not man haters by any means – who revered the Prophet and his early followers. Their take is that Islam has been hijacked.

    They could give countless examples of Mohammed’s kindness and respect for women, and that women were always able to come to him directly for answers to questions and to get his advice. He married a career woman, a merchant, and as long as Khadija lived, he had no other wives. Women rode with men into battle. Women worked in a wide variety of functions. . . or so this is what they have explained to me.

    The Islamic feminists I have met are rarely hateful. They usually are married, have a great sense of humor, and are against the abuses done against women in the name of Islam, which are not at all Islamic. Does that make sense?

    Comment by intlxpatr | October 29, 2008 | Reply

  4. DaisyMae: Oh dear. I’m sick and tired of how the media misrepresents this, and I’m even more sick and tired of how some people twist this into an attack on scholars and/or Islam.

    “How nice to have permission from the heavyweights of Islam to defend myself”

    How did you conclude that these “the Sunni clerics in Egypt” = “heavyweights of Islam”? (I’m not saying they are or aren’t ;p)

    Self-Defence does not need permission.

    From where in the article did you conclude that prior to this “permission”, women in Islam were not allowed to fight-back?

    In most cases, these statements are in answer to particular questions/inquiry (such as a person calling or writing to inquire about the permissibilty/veridct about a particular case or action. The scholar/”imam” is simply responding; like what happened in previous statements that the media spun). I’ve read some of the original news items in arabic about this, and indeed, the original wording is not as you have perceived. It was more of a stating the obvious by emphasizing that “self-defense” (technical term: دفع الصائل) applies equally too all including the case of a woman who comes under domestic violence by her husband.

    An Example to highlight what I mean and explain my frustration: DaisyMae goes to a public library. DaisyMae opens a Criminal Law book. She reads statements in it about how a person has the right to a self-defense. DaisyMae exclaims:”How nice to have permission from the heavyweights of Criminal Law to defend myself”!!! What the?!!! 🙂

    Comment by nbq | October 29, 2008 | Reply

  5. intl:
    “Their take is that Islam has been hijacked”

    If they mean the rather stringent restrictions that are imposed in Saudi today then to a large extent: YES!!

    That is not to say that no restrictions should be in place at all, but a balance should be reached based on the risks and impacts in a society.

    Thanks 🙂

    Comment by nbq | October 29, 2008 | Reply

  6. nbq – “That is not to say that no restrictions should be in place at all, but a balance should be reached based on the risks and impacts in a society.”

    That sounds to me like an informal definition of how civilization is achieved. 🙂

    Comment by intlxpatr | October 29, 2008 | Reply

  7. hmm… interesting… very interesting indeed.
    You remark gave me an insight by corolating what I wrote “risks and impacts” to come up with away that perhaps explains the Islamic point of view on things: it all has to do with risk and impact anlysis indeed.

    Interesting what you mentioned “informal definition of how civilization is achieved”. The difference then lies with how each would-be civilization would perform its Risk and Impact anlaysis.

    From the Islamic jurisprudence discipline, verdicts on practical matters have a lot to do with the risks and impacts. So far no one would disagree on this approach. What others might disagree on however is the type of risks and impacts to consider and the value to assign each.

    In Islam, given the belief in the hereafter from the trusted sources of knowledge and legislation (Quran, Prophetic guidance, Consensus and Analogy in that order), more weight is given to the infinite everylasting hereafter (Heaven vs. Hell) rather than the temporary and finite “here” / this world.

    Therefore, when faced with a choice of two verdicts/decisions one of which entails even a slight risk to the outcome in the everlasting hereafter, compared with a second choice that has a “perceived” benefit/enjoyment in this life, the rational choice is clear!

    Interesting… this reflection helped me understand the reason behind the tendency for the “too” strict restrictions we see in Saudi in particular; given the method/sect that is prominent there (i.e. wahabism?). In the past year or so, I’ve been attending lessons that gave me insight into this. Given the history of the formation of this sect (200-300 years or so ago) and how it came to dominate through the misconstruing of certain acceptable practices and the exageration of verdicts against people to the level that it excused for itself the killing of those non-deserving of such punishment, I know understand their tendency because they exagerate the weight given to the risks invovled in some practices such that they feel obligated to mitigate this risk with such restrictive restrictions!

    I don’t want to veer too off topic here (history of this sect and the geo-political reasons for and implications from its formation). So, I’ll stop here for now.

    Oh by the way, upon reaching home safely from work and re-reading everything without the tension at work, I noticed:”but you are always welcome to put forth the other side when you do it so eloquently and thoughtfully and politely”. I’m honestly not sure whether my original comment met your criteria or if you were trying to imply that there was some hints of impoliteness in it? So, please clear it up for me so that I can watch myself more in the future. I probably shouldn’t right while at the office, lool 🙂

    Comment by nbq | October 29, 2008 | Reply

  8. nbq – I considered your response eloquent and thoughtful and polite. I grew up in a family where discussion was valued. Sometimes I toss these things out figuring I might learn something. There are voids in my knowledge base that I don’t even know I have until I see a comment, or someone’s blog entry and I get the big “Aha.”

    Sometimes my topic can strike an emotional chord. I don’t mind passion, but I don’t allow really bad language, sexually charged language, and I don’t allow mean and unkind comments about others (an occasional IDIOTS is allowed and even encouraged, LOL) and you are well within those boundaries.

    I understand what you are saying. My concern is that scared men who create oplicy on the side of safety with regard to the hereafter (and I apply this to all religions) seem to focus on women. Their policies seem a lot harder on women than on men. They place more limits on women. They blame women for enticing men, when – to me – it often seems like the question is a question of their own self-control.

    Policies restricting women are usually done in the name of “protection”. In my own country, women were protected from managing their own money – isn’t that a scary thought? Women were given a little housekeeping money, money to clothe and feed the family and little more. Women couldn’t vote. Women could not hold responsible positions – we were not considered capable.

    What a pity. Some of the world’s most canny money managers are women. Some of the most compassionate and insightful judges are women. Not better than men – but surely equal to men. The worst are about the same as the worst of men.

    People who want women to stay home, bear children, raise children (and there is nothing long with that) and feel that is their purpose of creation place limits on women that have nothing to do with the creativity and capabilities God gives us. (IMHO)

    Not all women are born to be homemakers or mothers. Not all mothers are very good at it. It is truly one of the hardest jobs ever created.

    One of the first things I learned from my friends about Islam was about the protection of females, giving the women rights of inheritance when women in Europe were still traded like property. I have a lot of respect for Islam – and a lot of contempt for people of any religion who use religion to justify abuse of women and/or children.

    Comment by intlxpatr | October 29, 2008 | Reply

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